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Nice post Marcus. I recently started sending stuff out for publication again after not doing so for several months. Why? I had received advice to 1) be careful where I published (I already have a publication in a top 10 journal, so publishing any lower might make the first look like I just got lucky) and 2) to be careful not to publish a bad paper, or an argument I might later not wish to defend. This was paralyzing!

I started sending stuff out again after a conversation with my supervisor about this. After offering these two considerations, he laughed and said that he could worry about such things, since he already has a job and tenure, but that at my stage (ABD and on the market) I could not worry about such things. I started sending stuff out the next week.

I bring this up because I think a lot of us receive conflicting advise about publishing (especially during grad school). Obviously we need to weigh the arguments for and against potential courses of action (hopefully we are good at weighing arguments!), but sometimes one can be left in a I'm-not-sure-who-to-believe state. I think you have dealt with consideration 1 before, but what do you think of consideration 2?

Marcus Arvan

Jmugg: Thanks for your comment (and for the compliment)!

In response to your question, "What do you think of consideration 2?" (i.e. being careful not to publish a bad paper), I have a bunch of different thoughts.

First--and I really think this should not be underestimated--some of the most famous and influential articles in 20th/21st century analytic philosophy are bad papers. I won't name names for obvious reasons, but I recall on a least a few occasions in grad seminars a student asking the professor (of a famous paper), "How did this ever get published?", and the professor responding to the effect of, "Your guess is as good as mine." Now, of course, which papers are bad is a matter of opinion, but I think on any plausible precisification, a good proportion of famous papers are bad--and I would not be ashamed of publishing many of them. There are, roughly speaking, two kinds of bad: (1) bad and interesting, and (2) bad and uninteresting. I wouldn't be ashamed of the former, and the latter (bad and uninteresting) papers tend to go unnoticed (or so it seems to me).

Second, I think the worry to avoid publishing bad papers is perhaps a worthwhile one for graduate students and super-early-career people to have--since, at that stage, you're still learning what "good and bad" is. But, I would say, some of the things I've learned about becoming a professional are that, at a certain point in time, you need to (A) learn to trust your own judgment about the quality of your work (you're not a grad student any more--you *know* what good and bad work are!), (B) live with the judgments you make, and (C) not feel bound to agree with other people's quality-assessments. For instance, in some regards, I find that I systematically disagree with what significant numbers of people in the discipline consider to be "good." There are some recent papers, for instance, that have gotten a ton of attention that I just consider to be logic-chopping. Lots of people consider it to be good. I don't. And I'm prepared to live by my judgments.

Third, and finally, I think a lot of where you come down on (2) is a matter of risk-toleration and overall costs/benefits. As I've written many times on this blog, I labored doing "safe" philosophy for a long time. I was unhappy, did not enjoy my work, and did not think the safe work I was doing was any good. I simply decided I didn't want to work that way anymore. I decided that since success or failure are always a crapshoot--and there's a lot that's out of one's control--I wanted to "go down swinging", doing philosophy authentically rather than playing it safe. At least that way, if I were to fail, I could fail knowing I did philosophy the way I think it should be done. But of course I understand full well that these attitudes might not be right for everyone.

Marcus Arvan

Jmugg: A quick follow-up. Notice that the focus of this post isn't on sending stuff out. It's merely on *producing* a lot of stuff. There are people--Isaac Newton and Kripke are two particularly famous examples--of people who produce a ton of work but don't send much of it out. If you're afraid of publishing bad stuff, but think producing a lot of work might be beneficial (for the kinds of reasons I give), then a further option is to produce a lot of stuff and take your time revising and evaluating which stuff to send out for review!

Alex Guerrero

Not to the substance, but for the sake of accuracy (ahem): LeBron James made 767 out of 1353 shots during the regular season. That's a 56.7% success rate. You pulled his rookie year numbers. Interesting and suggestive in its own right...

Marcus Arvan

Alex: So I did - thanks for the catch!


The best part of publishing something that you later disagree with is that you can then write about why you were wrong then, but right now :P

I think it'd be the height of hubris to think that one will forever agree with what one publishes. Instead, we should expect our views to develop and change over time.

Marcus Arvan

Rachel: Agreed. Getting something wrong is an opportunity to publish something else getting it right later! Also, I think people overestimate the harm one can cause oneself by publishing a bad paper. If you publish something bad but follow it with a bunch of good stuff, the bad thing shouldn't haunt you too much. Einstein's first paper on capillary action was wrong about some very small issues, and it didn't exactly destroy his legacy! ;)

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